Tag Archives: James P. Johnson

LOVE NOTES FROM RAY SKJELBRED (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 27, 2016)

First, Ray makes friends with the piano, then says quietly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll play something I like,” or words to that effect.

He does and we do.

THE ONE I LOVE is not only a memorably catchy Isham Jones tune, but it’s famous in jazz history as the first song Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines improvised on together, at their first meeting at the musicians’ union.  I hear their approving phantasmal selves in Ray’s version:

Like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN has become victim to people who race through it and make its lovely contours mechanical.  Knowing, as I do, the memorable versions by Bing Crosby (1936) and Louis (1947), who treated it as a rhythm ballad, I’ve come to dread it in performance.  But Ray’s tender version, starting with the verse, is what the song is all about: gently swinging optimism, a view of the world where wonderful surprises are still possible:

Here’s James P. Johnson’s hymn of praise to the gentle loving ways that we all might recall and even enact, OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

Finally, a reminder that even when love affairs implode, the subject is still good for beautiful music: I COVER THE WATERFRONT (“We like it!  We like it!”):

Ray Skjelbred doesn’t cater to his audiences; he doesn’t woo us.  But he continues to delight, to amaze, with his love for the piano, the songs, and the great traditions.

This post is for my faraway and well-remembered friend Donna Courtney.

May your happiness increase!

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“BIRDS DO IT”: TAMAR KORN’S WILDWOOD RAMBLERS TAKE FLIGHT (Part Two): June 17, 2018

The stereotype of improvising musicians is that they come out at night; like bats, they avoid bright sunlight.  But this crew (Tamar Korn, Evan Arntzen, Dennis Lichtman, Adam Brisbin, Sean Cronin) seems so happy to be out in Nature, with no one calling to the bartender for another Stella.  The greenery and friendship is positively inspiring, and they offer us uplifting music.  You can savor the first part of this restorative afternoon here.  And here’s a second helping of brilliant joyous invention.  Thrilling to be there.

MILENBERG JOYS:

MUSKRAT RAMBLE:

I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING, vocal harmonies by Sean and Tamar:

LET’S DO IT (yes, let’s!):

I LOST MY GAL FROM MEMPHIS (with a Spanish tinge):

IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER:

ONE LITTLE KISS, verse and chorus by host Brice Moss (a song I associate with Cliff Edwards and the Eton Boys):

Enjoying these videos again, I am reminded of 2009, when I brought Leroy “Sam” Parkins down to Banjo Jim’s to hear Tamar and the Cangelosi Cards, and he said, “You know, she gets me right in the gizzard.  She, Caruso, and Louis,” and that was no stage joke.  I think he would say the same thing of not only Tamar, but this band.  And somewhere, Sam is happily sitting in with them.

There’s more to come, two more posts’ worth.  Yes.

May your happiness increase!

“UNDER THAT AWNING THEY CALL THE SKY”: TAMAR KORN’S WILDWOOD RAMBLERS (Part One): June 17, 2018

Photograph c/o JAZZ LIVES

This was a joyous afternoon, full of delicious lights and shadows not found elsewhere.  It was the gift of Hot Jazz benefactor Brice Moss, who — once a year — turns the backyard of his mother’s house into a lawn party for those who feel the music deeply.  It’s a privilege to be there, and to be allowed to bring my camera.  So, although you must provide your own drinks and snacks, Brice invites you to join in the joys through JAZZ LIVES — more than generous of him.

In 2017, The New Wonders had a fine time playing and singing there: you can attend that party here.

This June, it was a wondrous gathering — I’ve named the band TAMAR KORN’S WILDWOOD RAMBLERS, which is a nod to the lovely greenery and several of their song choices.  The Ramblers were Evan Arntzen, reeds, vocal; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, mandolin, vocal; Sean Eugene Zbigniew Cronin, string bass, vocal; Adam Brisbin, guitar, vocal.  They made the most glorious pastoral noises.  Here are several beauties from early in the afternoon, starting with a song that has the hilarious force of Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES for me:

and Irving Berlin’s homeopathic prescription for bliss, SUNSHINE:

James P. Johnson’s celebration of traditions, OLD-FASHIONED LOVE:

An instrumental romp on BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:

and another Berlin gem, LAZY (rhyming “valise-full” / “peaceful” — don’t underestimate Mr. Berlin’s comic audacities):

There are more joys to come.

May your happiness increase!

DENNIS LICHTMAN and THE QUEENSBORO SIX: “JUST CROSS THE RIVER”

Slightly less than three years ago, the superbly gifted multi-instrumentalist / composer Dennis Lichtman assembled his Queensboro Six and gave a concert at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  Here is the first half, and here is the second.  The music was multi-colored and seriously rewarding: Dennis’ tribute to the true jazz borough, Queens County, New York, home of so many jazz figures — from Clarence Williams and Basie to Louis and Dizzy, Milt Hinton and James P. Johnson — and currently home to so many more of the musicians we love.  Dennis assembled his Queensboro Six for a truly delightful new CD, its title above, its theme song below:

This disc is a model of how to do it — musicians and composers take note.  For one thing, the band has an immense rhythmic and melodic energy, but the pieces are compact — sometimes explosions of twenty-first century Hot, sometimes evocative mood pieces, but none of them sounding just like the preceding track.  Dennis is a real composer, so that even an exploration of Rhythm changes sounds lively and fresh.  His arrangements also make for refreshing variety, so that one doesn’t hear him as the featured soloist to the exclusion of the other luminaries, and the performances are multi-textured, harking back to the later Buck Clayton, to Charlie Shavers’ work for the John Kirby Sextet, Raymond Scott, to sensitive elegies and musings that hint at the work of Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt.  You’ll also notice compositions by and associated with those Queens denizens Louis, Fats, Clarence Williams.  As that borough boasts some of the finest ethnic restaurants, this disc offers one savory musical dish after another.   As they used to say, “For listening and dancing”!  Peter Karl is responsible for the lovely recorded sound and Ricky Riccardi for the fine liner notes.

Here are some details.  The musicians are Dennis, clarinet; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Gordon Au, trumpet; J. Walter Hawkes, trombone; Rob Garcia, drums; Nathan Peck, string bass — with guest appearances by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, vocal , guitar; Mazz Swift, violin, vocal; Terry Wilson, vocal; Nick Russo, guitar.  If you know even a few of those performers, you will want this disc, because they seem especially inspired by Dennis’ compositions, arrangements, and playing.  And no one imitates any of the Ancestors.

The songs are 7 EXPRESS / FOR BIX / MIDNIGHT AT THE PIERS / ROAD STREET COURT PLACE AVENUE DRIVE / SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY / WALTZ FOR CAMILA / L.I.C. STRUT / JUST CROSS THE RIVER FROM QUEENS / BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU / 23rd BETWEEN 23rd AND 23rd / SQUEEZE ME / THE POWER OF NOT THEN / I’D REMEMBER HAVING MET YOU / CAKE WALKING BABIES FROM HOME.

You may order a download or a disc here at very reasonable prices.

But perhaps more important than the disc itself, on August 1, the Queensboro Six will play two sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.  Tickets and details here.  Get yours today:

May your happiness increase!

SYCHRONIZED SWINGING: PAOLO ALDERIGHI / STEPHANIE TRICK, “BROADWAY AND MORE”

Listen, first, to Paolo and Stephanie on two pianos, playing Irving Berlin:

I’ve been at many of their live performances and I think this is the first CD to full capture the scope of what they offer so generously.  Perhaps some of it has to do with their being able to record on two pianos: they are a devoted couple for sure, but the freedom, never verbalized on stage, to have the whole bench and keyboard to oneself, could be liberating.  I won’t ask.  Even in 2018, some facts should stay private.

When I’ve seen them perform, audiences are on their feet at the end of the concert — and it’s not because they want to be the first out to their cars.  Rather, Paolo and Stephanie are not only wonderful pianists and great players, but they are old-fashioned performers, dazzling us every time.

The notion of “performers” may get under the skin of some fans, who insist that their beloved artists are akin to Plato’s mad creators, letting the made-up-right-this-moment transformative energy flow through them like electricity.  What those severe elders don’t understand is that everyone who plays or sings rehearses — so the “jam session” “impromptu” glories we revel in are, in fact, the results of years of practice.  So what Paolo and Stephanie create is polished: let’s say their spiritual model is Dick Hyman, not George Zack (you could look him up).  And what they have to play is plenty.

If you know Paolo and Stephanie, you know that initially they had very different ways of approaching the piano: Paolo’s hero is Erroll Garner; Stephanie comes straight from James P. Johnson and his not-brother Pete.  And as they’ve grown and played together, their influences have melded in the nicest ways, but each of them has retained a deep individuality.  Thus it’s not two artists trying to sound like each other, but working lovingly to complement each other.

The result is delightfully varied: each performance is, without artifice, a whole history of jazz piano, from Joplin to the present moment, seamless and convincing.  Since Paolo and Stephanie are world-travelers and multi-lingual, this ease of movement makes each performance a small yet deeply felt travelogue.  We’re invited to come along, and the cabin is first-class.

The repertoire on this new disc is wide-ranging, but always deeply melodic, and the melodic thread is never lost or abandoned even in the most elaborately glittering improvisations.  An analytical jazz fan will find much to marvel at; your relative who protests that (s)he “hates jazz” will also.  Here’s the tune list:

1. Call Me Madam Medley (Berlin) – 6:30
2. Marie (Berlin) – 4:55
3. Make Believe (Kern, Hammerstein II) – 5:01
4. The Lambeth Walk (Gay, Furber) – 3:49
5. Torna a Surriento / Anema e Core (Curtis, Curtis / D’Esposito, Manlio) – 6:44
6. If I Had a Million Dollars (Malneck, Mercer) – 4:04
7. Heartaches (Hoffman, Klenner) – 3:29
8. The Music Man Medley (Willson) – 7:07
9. An Affair to Remember (Warren, Adamson, McCarey) – 4:50
10. West Side Story Medley (Bernstein, Sondheim) – 7:28
11. Penny Lane (McCartney, Lennon) – 4:57
12. Mr. Sandman (Ballard) – 3:59

If you’re not humming one melody or another, reading those words, you need this CD even more.  And for those who know and love these songs, BROADWAY AND MORE is a treat.

Another helping:

Here you can hear other samples from BROADWAY AND MORE, purchase a disc or download the music.

May your happiness increase!

TAKE IT FROM THEM: NEVILLE DICKIE and DANNY COOTS PLAY FATS WALLER (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival; Sedalia, Missouri; May 31, 2018)

One of the great pleasures of the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival was their Fats Waller tribute concert — guess who was second row center with camera and tripod as his date?  I will share videos of the Holland-Coots Quintet playing and singing superbly, but first, something rich and rare, the opportunity to hear Neville Dickie in person.  I’ve heard him on recordings for years, but how he plays!  Steady, swinging, inventive, and without cliche.

Some pianists who want to be Wallerizing go from one learned four-bar motif to the next, but not Neville, who has so wonderfully internalized all kinds of piano playing that they long ago became him, as natural as speech.  Eloquent, witty speech, I might add.

Some might think, “What’s a drummer doing up there with that pianist?” but when the drummer is Danny Coots, it’s impudent to ask that question, because Danny adds so much and listens so deeply.  And there is a long tradition of Piano and Traps.  I thought immediately of James P. Johnson and Eddie Dougherty, of Frank Melrose and Tommy Taylor, of Donald Lambert and Howard Kadison, of Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones, of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett, of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Jimmy Hoskins . . . and I am sure that there are other teams I have left out here.

Danny’s tap-dancer’s breaks may catch your ear (how expert!) but his steady color-filled but subtle support is what I admire even more.  He’s always paying attention, which is no small thing no matter what instrument you play.  In life.

Here are the four selections this inspired duo performed at the concert: only one of them a familiar Waller composition, which is also very refreshing.  Need I point out how rewarding these compact performances are — they are all almost the length of a 12″ 78 but they never feel squeezed or rushed.  Medium tempos, too.

A NEW KIND OF A MAN WITH A NEW KIND OF LOVE comes, as Neville says, from a piano roll — but this rendition has none of the familiar rhythmic stiffness that some reverent pianists now think necessary:

TAKE IT FROM ME (I’M TAKIN’ TO YOU) has slightly formulaic lyrics by Stanley Adams, but it’s a very cheerful melody.  I knew it first from the 1931 Leo Reisman version with Lee Wiley and Bubber Miley, which is a wondrous combination.  But Neville and Danny have the same jovial spirit.  And they play the verse!  Catch how they move the rhythms around from a very subtle rolling bass to a light-hearted 4/4 with Danny accenting in 2 now and again:

Then, the one recognized classic, thanks to Louis and a thousand others, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING.  Neville, who certainly knows how to talk to audiences, is a very amusing raconteur in addition to everything else.  And the feeling I get when he and Danny go from the rather oratorical reading of the verse into tempo!

Finally (alas!) there’s CONCENTRATIN’ (ON YOU) which I know from recordings by the peerless Mildred Bailey and Connie (not yet Connee) Boswell: I can hear their versions in my mind’s ear.  But Neville and Danny have joined those aural memories for me:

What a pair!  Mr. Waller approves.  As do I.  As did the audience.

May your happiness increase!

PLEASING TO THE EAR: KIM CUSACK and PAUL ASARO IN DUET (August 31, 2015)

It’s no doubt very archaic of me, but I like music to sound good: to paraphrase Eddie Condon, to come in the ear like honey rather than broken glass.  And this duet recital by Kim Cusack, clarinet, and Paul Asaro, piano and vocal, is just the thing.  I hadn’t known of it when it was new, so I hope it will be a pleasant surprise to others: recorded at the PianoForte studios in Chicago, introduced by Neil Tesser of the Chicago Jazz Institute.

Kim and Paul gently explore a dozen songs, with roots in Waller, Morton, James P. Johnson, Isham Jones, and Walter Donaldson, Maceo Pinkard.  It’s a set list that would have been perfectly apropos in 1940, but there’s nothing antiquarian about this hour-long session . . . just two colleagues and friends in tune with one another making music.

For those keeping score, that’s A MONDAY DATE; SUGAR; I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING; I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (vocal, Paul); OLD FASHIONED LOVE; RIFFS (Paul, solo); ON THE ALAMO; MISTER JELLY LORD (vocal, Paul); WOLVERINE BLUES; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY; BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU; BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME.  All standards of “the repertoire,” but played and sung with subtlety, charm, and life.

Postscript: PianoForte Studios was also home to another wonderful duet recital, guitarist Andy Brown and pianist Jeremy Kahn in 2017, which you can enjoy here.

May your happiness increase!